In the twentieth century, as the stories of Judge Parker and the Fort Smith court were handed down, the executions that occurred at the Gallows gained mythic stature. Many of the books written in the 1950s and later treated the legends, folktales, and myths. Here are the facts behind some of the myths and misconceptions:
How many men did Judge Parker hang?
During the course of his 21 year tenure at Fort Smith, Judge Parker sentenced to the gallows 160 men and women who had been found guilty of rape or murder by a jury. Of this total, 79 men were executed on the gallows. The judge only handed down the death sentences; he did not attend the executions or participate in them in any official capacity.
Was Judge Parker the only judge to sentence men to die on the gallows at Fort Smith?
No. Judges William Story and Henry Caldwell also handed down death sentences prior to Judge Parker's appointment here in 1875.
Could you be sent to the gallows for stealing a horse?
No. The only crimes that carried a death sentence rape and murder. A larceny case, such as stealing a horse, would likely end you up at the Detroit House of Corrections for a year.
Were all of the executions open to the public?
The executions that occurred here were only open to the general public for three years (1873-1876). During that time, seven executions (a total of 22 men were hanged in these executions) were conducted where the public was allowed to attend. In 1878 a 16 foot tall fence was built around the gallows scaffold. From 1878 on, most executions had less than 50 spectators.
How many women died on the gallows?
None. While Judge Parker sentenced four women to die for murder convictions, all were eventually spared through presidential commutations or Supreme Court reversals. Three women had their sentences commuted to live in prison and one woman was granted a new trial and was acquitted.
Were there any complaints or protests about the gallows?
While many in Fort Smith felt that the gallows gave the community an undeserved reputation and notoriety, there were no protests against the executions.
Did George Maledon really supervise over half of the executions on the gallows?
Remembered today as the "prince of Hangmen," George Maledon's actual work at Fort Smith is much more difficult to document. Employed as a night guard in the jail, records indicate that Maledon supervised executions from the mid-1880s until 1891, and then again in 1894. He stopped working for the federal court in 1894, and began traveling the area with a tent display showing gallows relics, including nooses and photographs of the men who died on the gallows. Maledon was not the only jailer who participated in the executions. Contemporary newspaper accounts mention other jailers as well.
Did anyone survive a hanging at Fort Smith?
No. While at least one legend claims the possibility of a condemned man escaping justice on the gallows, and last minutes reprieves from the judge are a staple of western novels, no one who walked up the steps to the gallows lived to tell the tale.
How many men could be hung at once on the gallows?
Folklore traditions hold that the gallows could hang 12 men at once. This is unlikely, and nearly impossible given the size of the scaffold. The 1886 gallows scaffold had a trapdoor 16 feet long; if a space of two feet was allowed for each person, this could at most execute eight men at once. In fact, contemporary accounts confirm this. However, only six men were ever executed at once (on two occasions).
What happened to the original gallows?
Eleven and a half months after the final execution on July 30, 1896, the City of Fort Smith demolished the gallows and burned the pieces. The present reconstruction, built on the original site, was constructed in 1981-82.
Did the largest federal execution in American history occur here?
No. While the largest number of federal executions to occur in one place were done here, the largest number of men executed by the federal government at one time was December 26th 1862, when thirty-eight Sioux Indian men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota for participation in an uprising earlier that year.
What was the gallows used for when executions were not scheduled?
Largely ignored by the staff of the federal court during the times executions were not scheduled, the enclosure was used on at least one occasion as a horse corral. The structure was usually whitewashed and cleaned up prior to an execution.
Did they leave nooses hanging on the gallows all of the time?
The only time nooses were put on the gallows crossbeam was for an execution. Nooses were not left on the structure in between executions.
Could you buy a ticket or pass to attend a hanging?
No. After the executions began to be conducted privately in 1878, the U.S. Marshal occasionally limited the number of spectators by issuing passes. These passes were reserved for doctors, lawyers, and newspaper reporters. On occasion relatives of the condemned man, or victim of the crime were admitted as well.
Was a man named Jose Gonzales executed on the gallows?
No. A persistent piece of folklore is the so called 'death sentence of Jose Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales.' This legend plays on Judge Parker's speaking style and includes racist statements. Records list no such man as ever having appeared before the court. This death warrant is an excellent example of how the legend of the Gallows and the Hanging Judge has taken on a wide variety of epic forms.
Why did executions come to an end in 1896?
The Indian Territory jurisdiction of the court came to an end on September 1, 1896; putting a stop to the criminal cases being heard by the court. With a limited criminal jurisdiction, the court no longer heard capital crimes cases, and no longer needed the gallows.
Information compiled by Eric Leonard, Park Ranger